Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bruce Chatwin, from "In Patagonia"

The Mylodon was a Giant Ground Sloth, rather bigger than a bull, of a class unique to South America. In 1789 a Dr. Bartolome de Munoz sent from Buenos Aires the bones of its even bigger cousin, the Megatherium, to the King of Spain's cabinet of curiosities in Madrid. The King ordered a second specimen, live or dead.

The skeleton astonished naturalists of Cuvier's generation. Goethe worked it into an essay which appears to anticipate the Theory of Evolution. The zoologists had to picture an antediluvian mammal, standing fifteen feet high, which was also a magnified version of the ordinary, insect-eating sloths that hung upside-down from trees. Cuvier gave it the name Megatherium and suggested that Nature had wanted to amuse herself with 'something imperfect and grotesque.'

Darwin found the bones of a mylodon among his 'nine great quadrupeds' on the beach at Punta Alta, near Bahia Blanca, and sent them to Dr. Richard Owen at the Royal College of Surgeons. Owen laughed at the idea of giant sloths up giant trees before the Flood. He reconstructed Mylodon Darwini as a cumbersome animal that reared up on its haunches, using its legs and tail as a tripod, and, instead of climbing up trees, clawed them down. The mylodon had a long extensible tongue, like a giraffe's, which it used to scoop up leaves and grubs. 

Throughout the nineteenth century mylodon bones continued to surface in the barrancas of Patagonia. Scientists were puzzled by the innumerable lumps of bone found with the skeletons until Ameghino correctly interpreted them as an armour plating, like the plaques of an armadillo.

There was, however, a point at which the extinct beast merged with the living beast and the beast of the imagination. Indian legends and travellers' tales had convinced some zoologists that a big mammal had survived the catastrophes of the Ice Age and lingered on in the Southern Andes. There were five contenders: 

a. The Yemische, a kind of ghoul.

b. The Su, or Succurath, reported as early as 1558, living on the banks of Patagonian rivers. The creature had the head of a lion 'with something human about it,' a short beard from ear to ear, and a tail armed with sharp bristles which served as a shelter for the young. The Su was a hunter but not for meat alone; for it hunted animals for their skins and warmed itself in the cold climate.

c. The Yaquaru or 'Water-Tiger' (often confused with the Su). The English Jesuit, Thomas Falkner, saw one on the Parana in the eighteenth century. It was a vicious creature that lived in whirlpools, and when it ate a cow, the lungs and entrails floated to the surface. (It was probably a caiman.) 'Water-Tigers' also figure in George Chaworth Musters's memoir At Home with the Patagonians; the author describes how his Tehuelche guide refused to cross the Rio Senguer for fear of 'yellow quadrupeds larger than a puma.'

d. The Elengassen, a monster described by a Patagonian Cacique to Dr. Moreno in 1879. It had a human head and armoured carapace, and would stone strangers who approached its lair. The only way to kill it was through a chink in its belly.

e. The fifth and most convincing report of unexplained fauna was a huge animal 'resembling a Giant Pangolin' shot at in the late 1880s by Ramon Lista, then Governor of Santa Cruz.

Such was the background to Florentino Ameghino's pamphlet. For years, he told journalists, his brother Carlos had heard the Indians tell of the Yemische. At first they assumed it was an aboriginal terror myth, a mere product of their incoherent theology. Now they had new and startling evidence to believe in its existence as a living mammal:

In 1895, he said, a Tehuelche called Hompen was trying to cross the Rio Senguer, but the current was strong and his horse refused to enter. Dismounting, Hompen waded in to persuade it to follow. But the horse whinnied, reared, and bolted for the desert. At that instant Hompen saw the Yemische advancing towards him.

Coolly eyeing the beast, he threw his boleadoras and bola perdida 'weapons of formidable efficiency in the hands of an Indian.' He entangled it, skinned the carcass, and kept a small piece for his friend the white explorer. 

Carlos sent the skin to Florentino. The moment he handled the skin and saw the white ossicles he knew that the 'Yemische and the Mylodon of the past ages were one.' The discovery vindicated Ramon Lista's hunting story: he was renaming the animal Neomylodon Listai in memory of the assassinated ex-Governor. 

'And the skeleton?' asked the journalist.
'My brother is looking into the matter of the skeleton. I hope to have it in my possession soon.'
No. Dr. Ameghino did not think the animal could have floated from Antarctica on an iceberg.
Yes. He had asked the Minister of Public Works for a large sum of money for a mylodon hunt.
Yes. The Tehuelches hunted mylodons, often with sunken pits, hidden by leaves and branches.
No. He didn't doubt they would catch it. 'Despite its invulnerable carapace and aggressive habits, it will eventually fall prisoner to man.'
No. He was not impressed by Dr. Moreno's discoveries at the Eberhard Cave. If Dr. Moreno knew he had a mylodon skin, why hadn't he brought it to the attention of science?

Ameghino's press conference was another international sensation. The British Museum pestered him to cut off a tiny piece. The Germans wanted a photo of the dead animal. And, throughout Argentina, there were a number of sightings: an estanciero on the Parana lost a peon to a 'water-tiger' and heard the crack of branches and the animal swimming: 'clap...clap...clap...' and howling 'ah...joooooo!'

Moreno got back to La Plata and took his piece of skin to London. He left it at the British Museum for safe-keeping, where it remains. In a lecture to the Royal Society on January 17th 1899 he said he had always known it was a mylodon, and that the animal was long extinct but preserved under the same conditions as moa feathers from New Zealand.

Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Palaeontology, only half believed this. He had handled moa feathers. In St. Petersburg he had also handled pieces of Pallass's woolly rhinoceros and the deep-frozen mammoth from Yakutia. Compared to these, he said, the mylodon skin was so 'remarkably fresh' and the blood clot so red that, were it not for Dr. Moreno, he would have 'no hesitation in pronouncing the animal recently killed.'

Certainly there was sufficient doubt in England for the Daily Express to finance the expedition of a Mr. Hesketh Prichard to look for it. Prichard found no trace of the mylodon, but his book Through the Heart of Patagonia seems to have been an ingredient of Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

Meanwhile two archaeologists dug in the cave. The Swede Erland Nordenskjold was the more methodical. He found three stratified levels: the upper contained human settlement; in the middle were the bones of some extinct fauna including the 'Dawn Horse'; but only in the bottom layer did he find remains of the mylodon.

The second excavator, Dr. Hauthal of La Plata, was an impressionist who apparently didn't understand the principles of stratigraphy. He uncovered the layers of perfectly preserved sloth dung, mixed with leaves and grass, which covers the floor to the depth of a metre. He also pointed to the wall of stones which cut off the back part of the cave. And he announced that the place was a mylodon corral. Early man had domesticated mylodons and kept them penned up for winter rations. He said he was changing the name again, from Neomylodon Listai to Gryptotherium domesticum

Among Erland Nordenskjold's helpers was the German goldpanner Albert Konrad. Once the archaeologists were out of the way, he rigged up a tin shanty at the cave-mouth and started dynamiting the stratigraphy to bits. Charley went up to help him and came away with yards of skin and piles of bones and claws, which, by this time, were a saleable commodity. He packed the collection off to the British Museum, and after a tremendous haggle with Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward (who thought Charley was trying to up the price when he learned that Walter Rothschild was paying) sold it for £400. 

My grandparents got married about this time and I imagine he must have sent a small piece as a wedding present. 

Ameghino's part in the affair is most suspicious. He never came up with Hompen's piece of skin. The chances are he snooped in Moreno's crate, and saw the skin but dared not steal it. One fact is certain: his pamphlet became as rare as the beast it attempted to describe.

The modern verdict, based on radio-carbon dates, is that the mylodon was alive ten thousand years ago, but not since.

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